Pennsylvania State Police troopers have begun assisting police officers in Chester in patrolling Delaware County’s lone city, boosting the department’s ranks amid an unprecedented staff shortage.
The initiative, which began Thursday, brings five troopers in every day as part of what the department has dubbed “Operation Safe Streets.” Troopers and officers will serve side-by-side on traffic details, as well as hold a visible presence in neighborhoods where shootings and violence are frequently reported.
Chester Police Deputy Commissioner Steven Gretsky said the troopers aren’t replacing local cops, butsimply supplementing the force and freeing up resources to focus on larger, more complicated investigations.
“It’s not like they’re doing our job for us,” Gretsky said. “This is going to be more community-driven, proactive police work, being on foot and interacting with residents.”
Unlike in previous collaborations with the state police, crime isn’t driving this latest effort, according to city and county leaders. Chester is trending downward for both murders and shootings this year compared to the height of the COVID pandemic. And those numbers are also significantly lower than 2016, when the city of about 34,000 people had one of the highest per-capita murder rates of any city in the country.
Instead, the state troopers are being brought in to address an issue that is facing departments throughout the state and country: A severe drop in recruits.
The department is down about 20% of its officers, with 25 vacancies on the force, according to Gretsky. It’s not uncommon, officials said, for officers in the city to pull two or three overtime shifts just to fill patrol rosters.
When Gretsky took the police exams decades ago, he said, the city averaged about 150 applicants each year. Now, they’re lucky to get five or six.
It’s a phenomenon that has perplexed leaders in Gretsky’s position nationwide in the last few years, as law enforcement has dealt with reckonings from shootings by police officers, as well as calls to divert funding from departments to other services.
In Chester, leaders have been pushing for assistance from Harrisburg to address this issue for months. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro attended a January roundtable discussion at city hall about the staff shortage, and renewed a promise to nudge state leaders for funding toward more officers.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said this should be a priority for the legislature. Stollsteimer helped broker the collaboration with the state police, working with the state-appointed receiver, Michael Doweary.
Doweary, who was appointed in July 2020 to help pull the city back from the verge of bankruptcy, said in a statement that the partnership with state police “is essential to the economic viability of the city.”
Stollsteimer agreed, saying public safety is a crucial step in driving investment in the city.
“We as a society have disinvested in places like Chester for 70 years, and that’s why there’s not enough financial resources to staff the department,” Stollsteimer said. “We’re seeing this all over Pennsylvania, all over America, and the sections of government that aren’t law enforcement have to step up and help that.”
The officers in Chester have done “yeoman’s work” during the pandemic to keep the city safe, Stollsteimer said, and the addition of state police officers was seen as a way to provide backup heading into summer, when, historically, crime spikes.
“This is what community policing is all about,” he said. “We want officers out there as part of the community, being seen, and treating people with dignity and respect.”